David Laitin’s reflections on Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Turn of 1991 (2013) open up welcome space for further debate about Somali civil war violence in 1991-1992. The strengths Laitin highlights are considerable and include “the historical truth about responsibility” and the “cynical denial” of this responsibility” on the part of the political leaders who masterminded and organized this violence, as well as the inclusion in the book’s evidential base of Somali artistic representations and interpretations of this violence.

Nevertheless, Laitin’s response to Clan Cleansing includes significant points of disagreement. The latter deserve to be engaged, for, to the mind of the book’s author, they either misrepresent the book’s arguments or point at deeper differences in interpretation of the history the book analyzes. Before raising six specific points, this response to Laitin’s critique will make two general observations, one about a silence and the other about a recurrent theme underlying Laitin’s remarks.  First, with regard to silence, it is surprising that Laitin’s response – and this was true for the discussions during the World Peace Foundation (WPF) seminar as a whole – does not really engage with the central concept of Clan Cleansing, namely that of violence – i.c. large-scale, clan based violence against civilians – as a transformative factor in the history of Somalia’s civil war and an obstacle to social reconstruction and moral repair in the present. Second, a theme that underlies and reoccurs in Laitin’s response is his understanding of the role of clan in Somali society and politics. The latter appears to bear traces of an older anthropological paradigm in which clan is seen as a permanent trait of Somali society, one that responds to an extent to its changing context (for it can pop up, submerge, and resurface) but nevertheless has an existence underneath and outside of history.  The below will elaborate on this insight.

1. On the conceptualization of clan:

There are serious problems and inconsistencies in Laitin’s understanding of clan in his response to my book. This understanding, which causes him to find fault with some of Clan Cleansing’s main arguments, is as follows: “Outside the purview of the state” and “in the pre-Siyaad era,” Laitin notes, clan has always played a significant role in its ability “to protect its members, to secure rights to grazing land, and to settle disputes within the clan and across clans” (para. 5 and 3rd para. from the end). Clan Cleansing ignores and minimizes the social dimensions of clan identities, Laitin claims, for it simply presents clan identities as constructed by the political elite (para. 3 and 3rd para. from the end).  To illustrate this, Laitin draws on the story, cited in my book on p. 136, about Nuruddin Farah’s experience when he was looking for his family in a Kenyan refugee camp just as the people who had been targeted for clan cleansing began to stream over the border. Clan Cleansing cites this story to highlight how the communal violence of the clan cleansing had so undermined the victims’ identities as Somali citizens that they now expressed their identities in deeply felt clan terms. Laitin faults Clan Cleansing for missing the truth that underlying clan sentiments were reasserting themselves and claims that the book mistakenly sees these expressions of clan identity by the refugees as shaped by the political elite.

This is astounding to me. The historical transformation Laitin misses and to which Nuruddin so movingly bears witness is that of the birth of a new clan construct, or a new clan consciousness and identity – one that draws on past experiences and discourses but is at that moment primarily a response to the large-scale, clan-based violence unleashed on civilians by a specific fraction of the political class, namely the organizers of the clan cleansing campaign. By insisting that the clan identity expressed by these victims of organized clan-based violence was just the reemergence of underlying social clan identities that had  (always?) already existed “outside of the purview of the state” and “in the pre-Siyaad era,” Laitin disregards the role of the political class in the violence these refugees had just survived. That a political scientist would underplay (ignore, minimize) the role of the state/political class and the clan-based violence it sponsored in shaping new clan constructs is unexpected and does not make for a compelling critique of the analysis of clan in Clan Cleansing.

Members of the political class controlling or competing for control over the state have been a major influence on constructions of clan identity from the colonial period onwards (see also Mamdani 1996). Their use of large-scale clan-based violence against civilians to reach their goals from 1979 onwards – one of Clan Cleansing’s central themes – has intensified their impact. Even today those who try to reclaim their place and property in areas that were clan-cleansed often meet with violence enabled by political elites. Indeed, the outcomes of the violent, clan-based, political and territorial “unmixing” of Somalis, in which large-scale, clan-based violence against civilians such as the campaign of clan cleansing played a major role, are still unfolding in Somalia as we speak. Referring to such processes, as Laitin does, just as underlying identities reasserting themselves and failing to adequately acknowledge how the state and/or the political class shaped and continue to shape clan identity constructs an ahistorical understanding of clan identity whose explanatory power has proven and is proving to be inadequate.

Clan Cleansing takes clan identities very seriously; it simply refuses to take them for granted as something always already known. It does not see them as stable monolithic social forms that submerge and reemerge at different times, but tries to understand how, why, and through whose agency their meanings and roles change in specific diachronic and synchronic contexts (See also Kapteijns 2010). Indeed, the question of how clan identity could become a force so lethal that an unprecedented, large part of the Somali people were targeted for death and expulsion in its name is one of the central questions of the book.

2. On the clan policies of the Barre regime:

Prof. Laitin’s response to my book brings to light serious problems with his understanding of M.S. Barre’s policies towards clan. He insists that Barre tried to lessen the political relevance of clan until 1978, when “clan identities resurfaced in … the wake of the Ogaadeen tragedy” (para. 5). The reductive notion of clan identities “resurfacing” — in this case “after a decade of socialism and a national language” — is a persistent thread in Laitin’s thinking that has already been noted. What is surprising is how Laitin in his praise for Barre’s approach to clan overlooks a major policy the Barre regime implemented from its earliest days in power: its discrimination, persecution, and forced exile of tens of thousands of individuals of a particular clan. This political and economic persecution, which was followed by the first state-sponsored campaign of large-scale, clan-based violence against civilians in Mudug in 1979-1981, calls Laitin’s assertion into question, as was also pointed out during the WPF seminar. Why is it not on his radar?

Laitin describes the moment in 1980 at which he became aware of what he calls Barre’s  “clan genius,” a genius that lay “in fully understanding how best to make use of the still-relevant clan system” (para. 4 from end, my bold). This “best use,” of course, consisted of masterminding clan resentments and sowing clan hatreds, a clear example of the impact the political and state class had on clan consciousness and identity. Moreover, one cannot help but wonder whether Barre indeed developed his clan genius only after 1978, as Laitin claims, or whether he had possessed this skill and practiced it from the beginning of his rule. Readers may want to consult the masterful 1995 dissertation and submission to this blog by Daniel Compagnon.

Two small claims Laitin makes in his section about Barre are inaccurate. Clan Cleansing never calls or considers Barre’s approach to clan “invented” or “anachronistic” (para. 4), nor can it be fairly accused of “writing off the entire Barre dictatorship as a ‘kleptocracy’” (para. 5). Laitin bases the latter on a reference the book makes to the regime’s final years and ignores the whole of Chapter Two.

3.  On clan hate-narratives:

Laitin’s critique of the analysis of clan hate-narratives in Clan Cleansing reveals two basic misunderstandings of its arguments, each of which will be discussed in what follows.

First, Laitin believes that clan hate-narratives are nothing new, for Somali poets such as Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan and others were masters of clan invective (para. 6 and 3rd para. from the end). What Laitin misses is that Clan Cleansing draws on a very specific concept here, namely Ben Lieberman’s concept of “mythical national hate-narratives,” which I call “mythical clan hate-narratives.” Liebermann uses this concept to show how the kind of group hate-narratives that help persuade people to perpetrate crimes against humanity differ from the stories about other, factual and fictional, earlier group grievances, including the kind of poetic invective to which Laitin refers.

The group hate-narratives that take on a genocidal charge use mythical time – the long-term history of group grievances that lie at the core of this group’s identity – to overwhelm everyday time, that is to say, the time of everyday life, which neighbors, friends, classmates, colleagues at work, and so forth, had more or less peacefully shared irrespective of their clan backgrounds. (This is how such narratives come to constitute the rationales and justifications for large-scale communal violence). The hate-narratives that become charters to kill, moreover, further differ from other/older stories about grievance and exclusion because they convey a pressing urgency and hold that remedying the grievances at the heart of group identity is a matter of group survival and can ONLY be addressed by targeting all members of another group for brutal violence NOW. Clan Cleansing represents such mythical clan hate-narratives as something fundamentally new and documents their roles in the clan cleansing of 1991-1992. Again, a view that regards everything connected to clan as ‘same-old-same-old’ cannot begin to explain the campaign of clan cleansing and the War of the Militias that followed.

Second, Laitin takes issue with the book’s “argument that clan hatreds were driving unspeakable violence by the perpetrators” (3rd para. from the end). This is an inaccurate simplification of the argument Clan Cleansing makes about the role of clan hate-narratives as rationales and justifications of the crimes against humanity it calls the campaign of clan cleansing. The book shows how mythical clan hate narratives (such as the allegation of Daarood allochthony and “100 years of Daarood domination”), together with the code words that stood in for them (such as faqash and haraadiga Siyaad), played a role in facilitating and justifying the large-scale violence Somali civilians perpetrated against other Somali civilians in the name of clan.  However, the book does not present these hate narratives as a cause of this violence, let alone a sole cause, but as a major discursive trigger – one that, in the context of a complex and diverse set of causes, outlined throughout the book, helped move the perpetrators to violence.

4. On the motivations of the perpetrators:

Because Clan Cleansing does not include interviews with perpetrators, Laitin argues, the “motivations of the murderers in the Somali case remain obscure, and may not coincide with the causal factors that Kapteijns outlines” (2nd para. from the end). It is true that my book largely depends on sources other than hindsight oral accounts, whether from survivors, bystanders, perpetrators or rescuers. However, this does not mean that the motivations of the clan cleansers “remain obscure” in the book. Indeed the verbal acts of that very time-period and the explicit contemporary references to the mythical clan hate narratives in songs, poems, radio broadcasts, print and audio-visual news reports, diaries, eyewitness accounts, scholarly accounts, and so forth constitute a rich body of evidence. Would the motivations of Nazi perpetrators and the role of anti-Semitism in them have “remained obscure” if we had had no access to the hindsight accounts of the actual perpetrators?  This is untenable and the same is true – mutatis mutandis – for the Somali case. That a memory project by Somalis, as outlined in Clan Cleansing on p. 19 and pp. 233 ff., would add to our understanding of what motivated the many individuals who participated in the clan cleansing campaign is obvious. However, this should not blind us to the substantial body of evidence about perpetrators’ motivations Clan Cleansing has already gathered.

5. On the shortcomings of the Manifesto:

Laitin’s understanding of the Manifesto initiative of May 1990 is problematic because of its simplistic focus on clan. In Laitin’s view, the Manifesto group must be taken to task for excluding important political leaders who were Isaaq by clan background, men such as Mohamed Ibrahim Cigaal and Ibrahim Meygaag Samatar. Clan Cleansing happens to cite the opinions of both men when they were interviewed about the Manifesto initiative a few months later (Clan Cleansing pp. 114-115). Neither complained about having been excluded but expressed their political disagreement with, and opposition to, the Manifesto project. Both believed that the time for political compromise with the regime had passed. Moreover, Meygaag was actually not even present in Somalia. He was in the U.S., where he was actively campaigning for the SNM and mobilizing members of the Somali diaspora for supporting a final military assault on Mogadishu rather than the political compromise proposed by the Manifesto Group.

Clan Cleansing analyzes the failure of the Manifesto initiative in terms of the political break-lines within the group: its members’ differential relationships to the administrations of the past  (e.g., some had been in Barre’s prisons while others had politically and/or economically prospered) and their widely divergent political ambitions for a post-Barre political disposition. My book is quite explicit about the fact that the clan backgrounds associated with the major political and politico-military organizations in Somalia at this time were relevant to the political positions they took towards the ways in which the Barre regime should be brought down. Blaming the Manifesto Group for excluding their Isaaq peers or, for that matter, Clan Cleansing for presenting an analysis that contextualizes and explains political actions and behavior in terms that encompass more than clan, is reductive and ill conceived.

6. On the use of language and political correctness:

Laitin takes issue with two linguistic/typographical conventions adopted in Clan Cleansing, namely (i) when I refer to a group as “‘the’ clan X” (instead of simply “the clan X”) and (ii) when I refer to a caste group as a “so-called minority group.”

In the book I often refer to a particular clan as “‘the’ clan X” not because I want to be seen as “politically correct” but because I want to be analytically precise.  I use a typographical convention that destabilizes clan as a single, monolithic actor only to avoid attributing single agency to whole clans. My rationale is that clans did not kill but that people killed in the name of clan. I assert that a concept that cannot distinguish between the masterminds, inciters, organizers, perpetrators, bystanders, or rescuers in a particular episode of violence is imprecise and stands in the way of the kinds of truth telling that may lead to social repair.

However, I do not just refuse to blame whole clans and stop my analysis right there; I go on to pursue the question why, during the campaign of clan cleansing, so many people flocked to clan banners and perpetrated violence in the name of their clan. My analysis of the mythical clan hate narratives offers a partial answer to that question. It presents a way of trying to avoid the reification of clan while pursuing in very concrete ways how constructions of clan identity and sentiment, as shaped by past and present, played a role in the violence.  Is Laitin not off the mark when, in the last para., he construes such an approach as a failure to “acknowledge the social foundation of clans and clan identities?”

Laitin also takes issue with my choice of words when I wrote that General Samantar belonged to a “so-called minority group” (para. 8). There is a reason why Clan Cleansing avoids using the caste label that has been imposed on particular Somali individuals and groups. I take the emotional power of group identity and identity labels in Somalia so seriously that, whenever my argument makes the use of clan or caste names inevitable, I try to signal that I reject the hierarchies implied in them.  For me, calling the general by the name of a particular caste, as Laitin asks me to do, is like using the “n”-word in English. To my mind, casually using such caste names signals racist collusion unless and until the people who have been labeled this way reclaim this name as a badge of honor. I hope that they will want to do so one day, but that decision is theirs.

Works Cited:

Compagnon, Daniel. 1995. “Ressources politiques, régulation autoritaire et domination personnelle en Somalie: Le régime de Siyaad Barre (1969-1991).” Ph.D. dissertation, Political Science, Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour.

Farah, Nuruddin. 2000. Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora. New York: Cassell.

Kapteijns, Lidwien. 2010. “I. M. Lewis and Somali Clanship: A Critique.” Northeast African Studies n.s. 1, 1: 1-25.

Lieberman, Ben. 2006. “Nationalist Narratives, Violence Between Neighbours and Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Hercegovina: A Case of Cognitive Dissonance.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, 3: 295-309.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.





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